1817: Ann Statham, infanticide

Add comment March 21st, 2020 Richard Clark

(Thanks to Richard Clark of Capital Punishment U.K. for the guest post, a reprint of an article originally published on that site with some explanatory links added by Executed Today. CapitalPunishmentUK.org features a trove of research and feature articles on the death penalty in England and elsewhere. -ed.)

Ann Statham was an unmarried twenty eight year old woman who had lived with her mother near Wichnor (nowadays spelt Wychnor) between Lichfield and Burton on Trent in Staffordshire. Thomas Webster drove the Mail Coach between Birmingham and Derby and had got to know Ann who lived just a few yards from the main road that he traversed each journey. They formed a relationship and she moved to Birmingham to be with him. They had been living together for some ten months at the time of the crime and Ann had quickly become pregnant by him. Unlike some men of the time it seems that Thomas was happy to support Ann and the baby.

In June 1816, the now heavily pregnant Ann moved to Derby where her baby boy was born. She returned to Wichnor aboard Thomas’ coach on the 23rd of July, when the baby was five weeks old. She stopped off at nearby Burton on Trent on the way back and went to visit John Mason who was a constable in the town. John saw that Ann had a baby with her and heard it cry although he was later to tell her trial that he could not identify the baby as he did not see its face which was covered by a shawl. On the following Saturday John took Ann to the Three Tuns public house in Wichnor and noticed that she did not have the baby with her. He enquired after it and was told by Ann that it had died suddenly, she thought from a fit. She said that she was going to bury the baby at Walton and John offered her money to help with the funeral expenses which she told him she didn’t need.

On the evening of Tuesday the 29th of July, Ann was walking along the tow path of the Trent and Mersey canal and was seen with the baby by a bargeman named John Deakin. He testified at her trial that the bank was in poor condition and very muddy.

The wife of the landlord of the Three Tuns, Mrs. Thompson had spoken to Ann on the Tuesday evening and she had told her that she had suffered a fit whilst walking along the tow path and dropped the baby who had fallen into the canal. This surprised Mrs. Thompson, as she had known Ann for some years and had never known her have a fit.

The body was recovered by a another bargeman, Thomas Wooton, on Sunday the 28th of July who spotted a small bundle in a white bed gown and cap floating in the water. He took it to the Three Tuns where it was placed in the store room. First thing on the Sunday morning the body of a baby was viewed by John Mason and it seemed to be about the same age as Ann’s baby. John sent for Charles Nicholls, another constable from Burton and he went to Ann’s mother’s house where she was eating breakfast with her mother and questioned her. When he asked her where her baby was she became agitated and she told him that it was in Derby. He persisted with the questioning, reminding her that she had been seen with the baby near the Three Tuns on the Tuesday evening. Ann simply repeated that the baby was in Derby, an answer that in no way satisfied constable Nicholls who arrested her.

William Challinor, a butcher from Burton, had also seen Ann with the baby when she had visited the town a few days earlier and had been able to see its face so was able to positively identify the dead baby as hers.

Mr. Enoch Hand, the Coroner, who performed the inquest on the corpse, asked Ann if the child had been christened and she told him that it had, as William Statham. Death was found to be due to drowning and it was recorded that there were no marks of violence on the body.

She was taken to Burton and was committed by the magistrates to stand trial at Stafford Assizes, charged with the baby’s murder. Charles Nicholls was in charge of Ann for the journey to Stafford Gaol on Tuesday the 8th of August and told the court that she had said to him “Do you think I shall be hung? … They cannot hang me for nobody saw me.”

Ann had to wait nearly nine months until the Staffordshire Lent Assizes of 1817 for her trial which took place on the Wednesday the 19th of March of that year, before Mr. Justice Park. The prosecution was led by a Mr. Dauncey and the various people mentioned above gave evidence against her. Mr. Justice Park pointed out to the all male jury the various contradictions in Ann’s story and they returned a verdict of guilty.

Before passing sentence the judge told Ann that the crime of murder of an infant was a particularly heinous one, especially as at one moment it appeared that she had been breast feeding the little boy and the next she had had dropped him into the canal and left him to drown. There was no apparent motive for the crime. Thomas Webster, the father, was happy to support them both and all her friends knew about the pregnancy and birth.

He then passed sentence on her, telling her that “she was to be taken to the place from whence she came and that on Friday next she was to be taken from there to the place of execution where she was to be hanged by the neck until she was dead” and that afterwards her body was to be delivered to the surgeons for dissection. Ann would become the first woman to be executed outside Stafford Gaol.

Ann had now just two days left to live in accordance with the provisions of the 1752 Murder Act.

As was customary at many prisons at this time, the gallows was set up over the imposing main entrance of the gaol on the flat roof of the gatehouse, as this location was much easier to guard and afforded the many spectators a good view of the proceedings. In the condemned cell Ann seemed resigned to her fate and had confessed her guilt to the chaplain. The execution was set to take place between eleven o’clock in the morning and noon and a large crowd had assembled in Gaol Square. Soon after eleven o’clock Ann was duly led up onto the gatehouse roof in a procession with the under sheriff, the chaplain and several turnkeys. She ascended the few steps onto the platform of the New Drop style gallows and knelt in prayer with the chaplain. It is reported that the structure collapsed at this point, sending Ann, the chaplain, the hangman and the turnkeys into a heap on the roof below. The gallows was quickly repaired enabling the execution to take place an hour or so later. By this time Ann was, unsurprisingly, in a great state of agitation and had to be supported on the drop by two turnkeys whilst the preparations were made. The bolt was released by the unidentified executioner and Ann paid the ultimate price for her crime. Her body was left to hang for the normal hour, before being taken back into the Gaol. It seems that she was not actually dissected but that her body was symbolically cut several times before it was returned to her friends for burial.

If one accepts the evidence against Ann, which is difficult to question nearly two centuries later, it is clear that there was no recognition of the possibility that she was suffering from post natal depression at the time. Could this explain her actions? As stated earlier it appears that the father was willing to support Ann and the baby and that she was not stigmatised by her friends or in danger of loosing her job as the result of her pregnancy and William’s subsequent birth. In 1817 she was simply seen as evil and a murderess, now she would be viewed quite differently and be examined by psychologists to determine her motives and her responsibility for her actions.

Strangely the Staffordshire Advertiser newspaper makes no mention of the gallows collapse nor does it give any real details of her execution. However Ann was the last prisoner to be hanged on top of the gatehouse Lodge at Stafford. From here on executions were performed on a portable gallows, similar in pattern to the one used at Newgate, drawn out in front of the gatehouse. This arrangement was used for the execution of Edward Campbell for uttering forgery on the 16th of August 1817, who was the only other person was hanged in the county that year. Ann was one of seventeen prisoners condemned at the Lent Assizes but the only one to be executed. Only three more women were executed at Stafford. They were twenty four year old Mary Smith for the murder of her bastard child at Bloxwich, who was hanged on Wednesday the 19th of March 1834, Ann Wycherley, for child murder on the 5th of May 1838 and finally Sarah Westwood for poisoning her husband with arsenic who was executed on Saturday the 13th of January 1844. Male executions continued to be carried out at Stafford until 1914 when part of the prison was turned over to the military during World War I. After which Staffordshire executions took place at Winson Green prison in Birmingham.

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Entry Filed under: 19th Century,Abortion and Infanticide,Botched Executions,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,England,Execution,Guest Writers,Hanged,History,Murder,Other Voices,Public Executions,Women

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